Modern Marketing Brand Purpose

Ageism in ads – why are brands still failing to properly represent older women?

By Jennifer Faull | Deputy Editor

December 10, 2021 | 10 min read

It’s an issue the industry is aware of. It’s an issue the industry has tried to change. But the misrepresentation – and worse, the complete ignoring – of older generations, especially women, is a problem that persists. For our Deep Dive into Marketing and the Marginalized, The Drum asks why and what more can be done?

Tena Ageless

Tena’s ‘Ageless’ campaign

Back in 2019 the AARP – an advocacy group for older people in the United States – found that people older than 50 make up more than a third of the US population but they appear in just 15% of media images. And the images the do appear in are largely in a home setting, with an older partner or medical professional. They were not portrayed as workers – despite holding a third of jobs in the US – and certainly not users of technology even though 69% of those aged over 55 own a smartphone.

The report – covered everywhere from trade press to the New York Times – provoked many a column from advertising professionals imploring brands and agencies to better represent this group.

Yet, two years later a follow up AARP study found that 62% of older people still feel ads have unrealistic representation of the over 50s, and a nearly half (47%) agreed that “ads of people my age reinforce outdated stereotypes”.

“The biggest mistake we are making is not really representing older people at all, even in categories that serve an older as well as a younger demographic,” says Emma Grace, group executive and strategy director at Pretty Green, the agency which recently worked with Pantene on its ‘Power of Grey’ campaign.

“The over 50s still use technology, go to work, play sports, eat out, order in, have a drink, wear perfume, do their hair, eat ice-cream, are interested in fashion – but you wouldn’t know it from casting. When older people are represented, it can often be cliché or box ticky – my personal gripe at the moment is the trope that any woman over 50 goes cold water swimming.”

Women especially are being misrepresented. A 2018 study from media agency UM study found that 44% of British women aged 50 and over find advertising to be patronizing, while more than a quarter (27%) believe ads contribute to negative stereotypes of their age group.

Three years later, Channel 4 found the problem isn’t much improving. In general, male characters in ads are more likely to be older, while women are younger and often used for brand building. Older women are more likely to be portrayed in a stereotypical way, the broadcaster found.

Obsession with youth or just plain laziness?

Firstly, ads reflect society and culture and right now, ours is still obsessed with ‘youth’ and the idea that women, in particular, should avoid aging at all costs.

“We all know the Hollywood curve – sexy roles until 35 then disappear only to emerge back as the granny,” says Margaux Revol, strategy partner at ad agency AMV BBDO. “Advertising has perpetuated it and, in the name of ‘staying aspirational’, has been recruiting younger women to play older ones.”

She argues that beauty and self-care brands are among the worst perpetrators for misrepresentation of older people in ads.

“‘Anti-age’ in itself is evidence enough that ageing is considered the number one enemy for women – the double whammy of ageism and sexism. The other representation we see is a few women in their late 40s or 50s used by beauty brands, but almost to prove that it’s possible to stay that youthful self, keeping up the pressure for all of us to ‘age well’. What does that even mean? Not age at all?”

And then there’s the problem of ageism in agencies. How can the over-50s be better represented when so few of those actually making the adverts are that age themselves.

“Our industry has an ageism issue, especially among women, so that will be contributing to the problem – there are not enough people banging the representation drum,” says Pretty Green’s Grace.

Indeed, an IPA report found that the average age of employees in UK advertising agencies was 33.9. Just 6.2% of the industry workforce was made up of people aged 50 or older despite that demographic representing 32% of the UK working population.

And Revol says that those in agencies are so obsessed with ’big data’ and an ever-faster culture of advertising that they tend to only glance at an issue or an audience.

“I can’t tell you the number of times in my career when I’ve been given a brief or a document saying ‘busy housewives’. What does that even mean? If we don’t reject and refine our understanding of our audiences and what they actually experience there’s no way this can lead to quality creative work.

“This laziness is even more angry-making when women going through the menopause have such incredibly intense, diverse and fascinating experiences, which no one seems to care about.”

Brands getting it right

Initiatives to try and change have come thick and fast. Channel 4’s Diversity in Advertising Award, which rewards ads tackling ‘taboo’ subjects with £1m in free advertising, this year focused on the subject of ‘age’.

AMVBBDO won the grant for a campaign with client Tena that challenged perception of the menopause. But the brand has been on a mission to get people to get the public to re-evaluate how they perceive older women for some time.

It distanced itself from previous work that showed grey-haired women participating in activities like horse-riding thanks to Tena and instead talked about a real concern women with incontinence have – how it will affect their sex lives.

“Our ’Ageless’ campaign from last year explored the relationship between age, intimacy and incontinence, dropping a bomb in people’s minds as we haven’t been trained to accept that ageing women can have a fulfilled sex life, let alone might have incontinence,” explains the agency’s senior strategist Bea Farmelo.

“It got unprecedented levels of cut through for an incontinence brand, made it to Loose Women [the UK’s biggest daytime TV outlet], drove increased brand interest above our key competitor and sparked important conversations.”

It has taken the concept global, running a ‘Despair no More’ campaign in the Middle East earlier this year that turned the Arabic term for menopause of ’Age of Despair’ (‘Senn el Yass’) on its head, renaming it to ’Age of Renewal’ after getting a wave of submission on social media.

As a result of Tena’s campaign, the UN endorsed the new phrase and the ’Age of Despair’ has now been changed forever to the ‘Age of Renewal’ on Almaany.com, the biggest online Arabic dictionary in the region.

“The campaign successfully launched Tena in the Middle East, with research showing 92% of women indicating purchase intent. The campaign changed negative attitudes towards the incontinence category, with a 24% decrease in our consumers feeling held back by incontinence,“ says Farmelo.

P&G haircare brand Pantene is a good example of a brand that had, arguably, historically perpetuated ‘anti-aging’ stereotypes to instead encourage women to celebrate the ageing process.

“As one of the world’s biggest advertisers, we recognize the need to use our voice to drive positive change in society,” says Katharine Joy Newby Grant, vice-president of beauty care and brand organization for Northern Europe at P&G.

It made a very deliberate shift across all of its haircare brands to ensure that its advertising was reflective of the diversity of the people who buy its products. We’ve looked at this from a number of different angles – from Pantene’s ’Power of Grey’ campaign, which recognized and celebrated the beauty of grey hair, to launching a dedicated haircare range for women experiencing the menopause.”

And testament to the fact that better representation of older generations is commercially beneficial to brands, Panetene saw a spike in sales on the back of a product launched to support women’s haircare during the menopause.

“Launching Pantene Hair Biology Menopause Revitalize & Soothe was a really big moment for us. This range quickly became one of the top sellers when it launched,” adds Grant.

What we need to do next

So, what more can the industry do to improve representation of older people – particularly older women – in advertising?

Better representation within agencies and at senior level within brands is a start, but that will take time. Revol says that, from a creative point of view, a significant step forward would be a rethink of the role older women are given in ads.

“Women’s worthiness is judged by their bodies – appearance and fertility – but men’s worthiness is linked to what they do, I think this gives us enough margin to improve already: giving women an actual, active role and agency over her life, doing stuff, wanting stuff would be a good start,” she says.

“Perhaps a good rule could be, if you’re not providing products that support women’s physical health, maybe women’s bodies shouldn’t be the focal point. Or even commented on, for that matter. You don’t see marketing for men over 40 dwelling on their receding hairline, beer belly and impotence to reassure them that they can be someone. It’s assumed that they can. I would like that to be true of women.”

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